Monday, December 17, 2012

A Christmas Fire: The Burning


It looks odd hanging there above the graceful works of fly rod royalty. Above the rich caramel-hued Granger Register. Above the stunning blonde HL Leonard Catskill. Above works of bamboo art, though their soiled cork grips suggest they are more than just pretty things. Whatever their utility, they are lovely to look at. Yet there it sits, elevated to the place of honor. The place of significance. It can only be that it has a story.

It was two days 'till Christmas and colder than a teacher’s tit. At least that’s what Johnny Culver said in the coatroom, making Nate and all of the other 5th graders giggle hysterically and check over their shoulders to be sure Miss Anderson wasn’t within earshot. Nate’s little brother, Timmy, heard it too and laughed the loudest, though it was certain that he didn’t get the joke. But that lack of understanding didn't stop him from repeating it later in the lunchroom and earning Johnny another trip to Principle Dan’s office. Third time this week and it was only Tuesday. Nate wondered if such things were tracked. If so, Johnny was surely on school record pace. As Miss Anderson dragged him down the hallway, Johnny glared back and pointed his stubby finger at Timmy. Everyone knew what that meant. And while Nate felt powerless to stop it, he was inclined to look the other way when it happened.

Timmy was Nate’s cross to bear. Two years younger, but four behind him in grade, Nate’s little brother made life miserable. Most folks politely called the child slow. Aunt Martha said there’d been problems when he was born. An imbecile cord, or something like that. Dad once suggested, after a beer too many, that the boy’d simply thrown snake eyes in the genetic crapshoot of life. It had earned him a sharp glance from Mother and a night on the couch. She called Timmy her special angel and treated him that way. Johnny Culver used ugly, mean terms which all of the kids repeated. Nate wasn’t sure what to believe. He only knew that having Timmy around was hard.

Apart from his rudeness, Johnny had been right. It was cold. The walk home from the bus stop had been brutal and Timmy’s foot-dragging and whining had only prolonged the agony. Timmy hated the harsh weather but Nate could never convince him that hurrying held the answer. The big baby would grumble, then slow, and, when chilly enough, simply sit down and cry. Nate got him home, this time, only with the assurance that school was out for Christmas break and they could stay inside for the next several days. They could stay close to the fire.

Timmy loved the fire. He would sit in front of it for hours watching the flames lick the sides of the stone fireplace, the sparks swirl and rise with the draw, and the hard, heavy wood transform into soft glowing embers. It was magic. But it was work, too, and feeding the main source of winter warmth was a fulltime, family job. Dad found, cut, and split the downfalls from around the farm year-round. Mother and Nate helped stack the cords and kept a steady supply moving from the neat backyard woodpiles to the bin on the porch, and, finally, to the hearth. Timmy’s job was the gathering of kindling.

With school in recess, the boys relaxed. An evening without homework was an evening to savor. While the cold wind whispered with soft voices through the myriad crannies in the old farmhouse walls, Nate leafed casually through his stack of comics and Timmy settled in front of the fireplace, transfixed. Mother's gentle caroling drifted in from the kitchen, decking the halls as she washed dinner’s dishes. Dad sat at the kitchen table, shuffling, then staring at, then shuffling again several stacks of important looking papers. And muttering.

It was also the boy’s responsibility to keep the fire going and, if left on his own, Timmy would let it dwindle to ashes, hypnotized by the process. Nate reached out with his foot and nudged his brother, releasing him from his trance, and told him to get more wood for the blaze before Dad took notice. Timmy whined about having to go out on the cold porch, but it was his turn (or so Nate said) and he reluctantly headed for the coat closet. Nate returned to his browsing.

After a few minutes, Timmy was back at the hearth, watching the blaze and an odd smell began to drift through the room. Dad looked up. “What’s that?”

Nate shrugged.

“Just put some wood on the fire” replied Timmy, looking a little unsure of himself.

Dad frowned. “Which pile did you get it from, son?”

Timmy withered. “When I was getting my coat I found some wood in the closet, Dad. I used that in the fire.”

The color drained from Dad’s face. Nate knew why, but he wasn’t supposed to.



Note: Here, then, is the first part of this holiday tale. The rest will be told in three additional posts over the next few days, leading up to Christmas. I hope that you stick around for them all. But if they're not your cup of tea, no worries. We'll return to our regularly scheduled drivel shortly thereafter.

And before anyone asks, this piece is not autobiographical. While the resemblance is remarkable, Timmy is not me.


The story continues, here...

7 comments:

THE RIVER DAMSEL said...

A great piece for the holidays. .Bring on part. two!

Joel D said...

Nice mike - I see a life lesson in the works here.:)

Mike Sepelak said...

Patience, Emily. Patience.

You might just be right about that, Joel. And I thank you for the lovely Christmas card. It's displayed quite proudly here on the desk. Beautiful work.

cofisher said...

I'm hanging on by my suspenders Mike.

Mike Sepelak said...

Don't lose the grip on your suspenders, Howard. I'd hate to be responsible for the fall out. :-)

e.m.b. said...

"hypnotized by the process" -- so often I feel. Looking into a fire, looking at life. Dizzying -- all the acts, all the parts to play. But you're a master story-teller, my friend. And I cannot wait for the rest.

Mike Sepelak said...

In that regard, I guess that I am Timmy. Dizzying indeed, Erin. Thank you.